Book Review: Hag-Seed is Atwood's Latest Classic

I really didn’t expect my favorite new release this year to be a retelling of The Tempest. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is the fourth novel of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which various authors retell one of Shakespeare’s plays. It follows the eccentric stage director Felix, who himself is prepared to present The Tempest in honor of his deceased daughter, Miranda. Unfortunately, shortly before the opening he is usurped and ousted out of the drama festival by his assistant.  The play is canceled and he is left without a job.  He spends years living in isolation, only coming back out in the world to teach drama at a nearby penitentiary. There he waits, knowing that somehow it would bring him closer to revenge.

At a certain point I put Hag-Seed down and started to read The Tempest so I could follow along better once Felix decided to adapt The Tempest in his class.  It's never been a favorite play of mine, so I must commend Atwood for making me actually care about the original. Throughout the book, Felix explains the themes to his class and in his own private musings, and of course this wouldn’t be a retelling without the events of his life mirroring the play. I haven’t read the other books in the series yet, so I’ll have to compare it favorably to Akira Kurosawa’s adaptations of Shakespeare; it’s not a direct lift, but it pays homage in such a wonderful way that makes you appreciate the original on a new level. It’s educational and engaging, and perhaps we will see it on high school or university reading lists in the future.

The book is by nature meta-textual. Many characters reflect on the play and how it reflects on their own lives. That said, even if you haven’t read or seen The Tempest before, there is a lot here to enjoy. Many of the original characters are incredibly endearing, and the theme of loss and mourning is at times gut wrenching. While it follows the same beats as the original play, it diverges enough to feel original itself. Felix is Prospero only in that they share some qualities; the Ariel that Felix commands is not a spirit of the air but the grief that he holds on to and can’t let go of. At times it may be hard to keep feeling bad for him; it’s been twelve years, man, let go. But then Atwood comes back swinging and there were a few times where I felt myself choking up.

No political party or real politician is mentioned in the book, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Atwood was taking revenge against the previous Canadian Conservative government in her portrayal of the officials who take the place of Antonio and the court of Naples. Their disdain for the arts and their desire to cut funding to the prison program serves well as a villainous, real world scheme that perhaps veers a little too close to the play to be completely believable, but is certainly cathartic and enjoyable.

Hag-Seed was released on October 11th and can be purchased where fine books are sold.

Megan “Spooky” Crittenden is a secluded writer who occasionally ventures from her home to give aid to traveling adventurers.